Mike Jensen: Temple-Rutgers: This rivalry holds much promise

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood (center) and his team sing the school alma mater after beating Syracuse last Saturday. MEL EVANS / AP
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood (center) and his team sing the school alma mater after beating Syracuse last Saturday. MEL EVANS / AP
Posted: October 20, 2012

Before the season, the Temple Owls were picked last in the Big East in a media poll.

First offering the caveat that preseason polls are fairly meaningless, Big East senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli said this week, "I think a lot of people prior to this season just didn't know what to make of Temple."

Weighing serious graduation losses and a new league against last season's 9-4 record that included a 5-3 Mid-American record and a 37-15 bowl win over Wyoming, where was anyone supposed to put all that?

Not at the bottom, it appears. The winner of Saturday's Temple-Rutgers game will sit alone at the top of the Big East going into the last weekend of October. Longtime observers of this league should read that again slowly. This battle of unbeatens was set up by Temple starting league play with comebacks over South Florida and Connecticut.

There are tons of toss-up games in the Big East this year, so it's a pretty big deal that Temple could catch two early tosses. The Owls, 3-2 overall, have yet to lose the fourth quarter of a football game. (Flip side: They've been outscored by 34-17 in the first quarter and led only Villanova after the first period.)

This is another good litmus test for Temple. All signs point to Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati being the top Big East teams, and everyone else fighting for the scraps, which include bowl bids. Can Temple look better against a real-deal Rutgers defense than the Owls did against a similarly tough unit at Penn State?

Temple can get creative at Lincoln Financial Field, with more to gain than lose. The 6-0 Scarlet Knights are the ones starting to dream big dreams.

The Owls do need to establish home turf, and we're not just talking about the Linc. We have long thought the nation's maps should be redrawn, with Philadelphia becoming the capital of the state of South Jersey. When it comes to football, everyone knows that territory is rich in talent. Temple needs South Jersey players to do well. So does Rutgers. And obviously Rutgers doesn't mind crossing the bridges trying to get Pennsylvania players.

The Big East would love for this game to become a serious rivalry. Previously, it seemed like either Rutgers or Temple was always holding up the bottom of the league. When Temple last played in the Big East in 2004, it tied Rutgers for last with a 1-5 record. The Scarlet Knights beat nobody but Temple in the league that year.

In those days, Rutgers was the weakest link, finishing last by itself four times from 1999-2002, winning just one Big East game in those four years. Temple finished 0-7 in 2003 to finally break the Scarlet Knights stranglehold.

That was a different Rutgers era. But here's another sign that things are going good in Piscataway: This week, the Scarlet Knights already picked up a football win over Temple. Tom Luicci from the Newark Star-Ledger noted this week that Rutgers listed its series advantage at 18-16 over Temple, while the Owls officially had it at it 19-15. That's because Temple had forfeited its 1986 victories after star running back Paul Palmer was declared ineligible for accepting money from an agent. But Rutgers never turned the loss into a win.

Not realizing any of this until Luicci wrote it, the current Rutgers regime announced it is accepting the win and will adjust its all-time record.

For Temple, getting bowl-eligible was the goal before the season. That got tougher after an early loss at Maryland but is back in play again, even if the opening remains narrow.

The bottom line: The Owls should enjoy being unbeaten in the league just as the Scarlet Knights like being unbeaten overall. And the league should like these two schools 50 miles apart, the closest distance in the football division, getting after each other for more than avoiding the bottom.

The Big East office won't have an official rooting interest today. Give the league honchos truth serum and they'd have to want Rutgers, the highest-ranked team in the league at 15th in the BCS standings, to keep going.

That same serum would reveal the bosses are thrilled the Owls are 2-0 in their Big East restart, that whatever happens Saturday it's not the same old Temple, or the same old Rutgers-Temple game.

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

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